Human Resources

The Computerisation "Work Ethic"

When I was at school, “not working” was a pretty obligatory vibe running through the walls, corridors and classrooms. In this system, it was basically compulsory to pretend not to be working, even if you were, and even though this flew in the face of all common sense.

In the professional workplace, the opposite system appears to be true. Yelling about how hard working you are is the overarching aim. Cunning swanners who do pretty much naff all but cruise about between lunch meetings, answering the odd email via BlackBerry in a hasty and frankly negligent fashion, will mop their brows theatrically and lament just how rushed off their feet they are. 

The fact that this bunch play the system so beautifully might be the real death of the “9-5 mentality”, in certain sections of society at least.  Because a professed “work ethic” often has nothing to do with the hours people actually work. Many of us will have seen this dichotomy played out first hand in office spaces stuffed to the rafters with the catcalls of frantic busyness, whilst screens showcase meticulously updated Facebook pages.

Back in 1978, Alan Bennett produced a television comedy, which looked at the lives to the two typical 9-5 works, Doris and Doreen. For them, life was wasted in pointless paper shuffling and lethargic work avoidance. Desks were piles high with ignored files. Productivity and progress were the nemeses of these characters' lives. Whilst computerisation was the biggest evil of them all.

Then nobody knew how it would turn out by 2014 where we all live in a fully computerised office space. Now many of us are hooked up to half a dozen devices at once. Emails buzz constantly, and slightly out of synch. Instant messages blink furiously across the screen. And if the internet is down, well frankly, we might as well call it quits. We can work from home and be reached on the move, but we can’t stand not to be connected.

The hours available for work have gone up exponentially. The tales of working constantly have hit overdrive. On 9th July the BBC published yet another headline: Managers 'work extra day per week in unpaid overtime'. Yet it is virtually impossible to pinpoint if this has actually increased most people’s productivity. Doris and Doreen are still here in our midst, only today they sit in front of a screen busily tapping out how bored they are on Facebook, whilst yodelling about how desperately busy they are.

This trend is only likely to increase as predictions for the future of offices become increasingly like science fiction. A couple of years back the BBC reported that new research conducted by an expert panel predicted the workplace by 2025 would see the death of the "physical" environment. Instead, we will be able to "conjure" workspaces out of thin air. Holographic bosses will materialise on surfaces digitally enabled with "smart" paint, whilst numerous virtual objects will pop up at your command for easy printing in 3D.

Mark Heraghty, Managing Director at Virgin Media Business, suggested the changes we're seeing now could result in "mobile phone, and eventually goggles and active contact lenses, [becoming] the gateway to virtual work spaces and collaborative projects." This means that one blink and we will be virtually transported into the office. "There will be no need to even worry about bringing your own device if that just means bringing yourself. The blending of devices for work and for personal use will be taken to the nth degree".

It all sounds quite incredible, but whether you're convinced or not, none of this can guarantee anything tangible, or any kind of “work ethic” that goes beyond the lip service of always being “on”.

The ability to work anywhere and develop skills online is an everyday reality. PWC has predicted that the number of host locations a company uses will increase 50% by 2020. Hot-desking, the "Regus" office and ability to purchase "office space in a box" from your local newsagents have been part of the status quo for ages now.

Anyone with internet access can publish information online, ‘eLearn' new skills and ‘eLance' their talent in the global market place. And even if the the cash individuals earn from flogging these skills is not necessarily very good, it certainly does save large businesses a lot of money.

Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice and Director of the Future of Work Consortium, believes the way technology is changing the office space will impact us all in three ways.  She describes these as the "hollowing out of work", "globalisation" and "transnationals". In practice, this suggests the further widening of the gap between skilled and un-skilled, motivated and demotivated. It means the creation of an "uber workforce" who can cherry pick the best jobs from a global pool.

The trend is best described as follows: the "hollowing out" of work is the disappearance of middle-wage, middle-skilled jobs, these roles can either be outsourced to a region with lower wages, or they can be replaced by technology. "Globalisation" allows those with the right experience to find employment anywhere in the world. This in turn results in the rise of "transnationals". Gratton sees these as a worldwide group of people who are able to relocate at any time, selecting opportunities based on global employment and investment opportunities.

In April this year, the Economist ran a piece which stressed that for the first time in history: “the rich have begun to work longer hours than the poor”.

However, surely on some level this has always been the case in business? There has always been a highly-educated career-class who gained the best jobs and the best salaries. These individuals have always seconded off to a variety of ‘longer-hours’ opportunities all over the world, whilst ordinary folks went to an office each day, did their stuff and then legged it out the door on the nose of 5pm. Yes, they work longer hours, but some of it is clearly lunching, and all of it is less of a drudge.

My view is computerisation may be changing many things in the workplace, but offices are still populated by people… and frankly, they never change.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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